Up until now we’ve focused on which players have been responsible for the Leafs successes over the past 100 years. Today we’ll shift gears and look at some of the coaches and GM’s that have made the Maple Leafs great for stretches of time.
5. Pat Burns
Anyone who has the sense to leave the Habs for the opportunity to coach the Maple Leafs clearly has a sound hockey mind. The fact that Pat Burns was behind the bench for the Leafs most respectable hockey since the 1967 Cup victory and the best stretch of hockey in the past 49 (soon to be 50) years.
Burns teams seemed to emulate the style of the successful 1960s Leafs teams, relying on a Selke center, a hard nosed captain, and no name defence to get his results. Sylvain Lefebvre and Bob Rouse became shutdown legends in Toronto largely because of the fact that they perfectly fit Burns system. Of course a young goaltender by the name of Felix Potvin helped him out.
4. Cliff Fletcher
Fletcher probably would have been higher on this list if Fletcher Part 2 didn’t sign Jeff Finger, mistaking him for Kurt Sauer. Or trading up to draft Luke Schenn. Or trading a draft pick for Ryan Hollweg. Or trading Alexander Steen and Carlo Coliacovo for Lee Stempniak. Though to be completely fair, he also did acquire Mikhail Grabovski for a song.
No, the Fletcher who is making this list is the Cliff Fletcher who was tasked with digging the Leafs out from the Ballard years and the Silver Fox did it with gusto. He added Pat Burns, Dave Andreychuk, and Grant Fuhr is a relatively short period of time. And of course there’s the Gilmour trade. Spare parts for Gilmour and useful throw ins like Macoun made the Leafs great, fast.
There was also the matter of acquiring Mats Sundin for Wendel Clark which might have been even greater robbery than the Gilmour trade but we are reluctant to accept that because Wendel is so likeable.
Fletcher brought the Leafs back from scorched earth and not many hockey minds would have been capable of doing that.
3. Punch Imlach
The winningest coach in Leafs history comes in at number three on the hockey minds list. The four Stanley Cups as a coach help his cause as well, as does the fact that Imlach also was successful as an assistant GM, but unfortunately less so as a full GM.
Imlach’s legacy should be left to coaching, but even that wasn’t without it’s flaws and controversy. Imlach had a horrible track record with younger players and with anyone not buying into his hard nosed style of hockey. You can credit Imlach with driving Mahovlich away, but you can also credit him with being the right coach to get the most of Dave Keon, Ron Ellis, Bobby Baun, Eddie Shack and others.
His GM legacy is far more forgettable. As a close friend of Harold Ballard, Imlach was brought in to carry out the whims of Ballard, and Imlach presided over the dismantling of the budding powerhouse Leafs team of the late 70s, starting with the McDonald trade.
We’ll forgive Imlach for his GM days since Ballard would have found a way to ruin the team without him, and as much as Imlach’s coaching style would drive many of us nuts today, it was absolutely effective in the 60s and we can thank him for making it so it’s only 50 years of depressing history instead of 60.
2. Hap Day
Second in all time wins as a coach, five Stanley Cups as a coach, and another as the assistant GM (co-GM for a while), Hap Day was not short on success no matter what his involvement in the game was.
In addition to being one of the most successful coaches record wise, Day helped develop the style of play that made players like Teeder Kennedy, and George Armstrong legends.
Day also had success as a Leafs player, and is the second longest running captain in Leafs history after George Armstrong.
1. Conn Smythe
This one seems like somewhat of a give me. I mean the guy or his family are attached to every cup in Leafs history. He named the team, he was the GM for the majority of the Leafs success, and was so widely respected that he has the playoff MVP award named after him, not to mention having a division named after him at one point.
Smythe truly is one of the builders of the league and the Leafs, and arguably the growth of the game can somewhat be attributed to Smythe as well, as it was the product he helped create that brought about the expansion/WHA era.
Smythe’s track record is so strong that it can withstand the fact that it was his departure from the Leafs that ushered in the Ballard era, although his son Stafford was still doing what he could to keep the Leafs at the top during the 60s. And the blame can transferred to Stafford Smythe for giving Harold Ballard complete control of the team.
In the history of the Leafs Conn Smythe is the only owner who isn’t completely hated, and that in itself is reason to put him at the top of this list, as being able to please Toronto sports fans is the sign of a brilliant mind